Can a father and son still have an old-fashioned adventure? Jamie Ball canoes down the River Barrow to find out.
‘Can we play chess now?’
It’s the burning question all weekend. My seven-year-old son and I are paddling down the River Barrow and, much to my amazement, when we stop off in Carlow for supplies, he latches on to a chessboard in a toyshop.
It’s been End Game ever since.
Never mind the herons balancing by the bank, or the immaculate swans landing on the water. Whether we’re in the canoe, by a charming lock keeper’s lodge, setting up the tent each evening or going for a morning swim, the Barrow hasn’t a hope in heaven against the timeless tactics of this 2,000 year-old board game.
But then, I had exactly this kind of thing in mind. In an age where screens are ubiquitous and time has become a commodity, to simply sit on a boat and paddle down a river for two or three days seems strikingly counter-cultural. We’re off on an old-school adventure, father and son, catching up with ourselves.
“Believe me, my young friend,” I quote Ratty to him (from my favourite childhood book The Wind in the Willows), “there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
“Unless its PlayStation,” he replies.
Though you could drive it in a half-hour, we’ve chosen a cruisey, three-day canoe trip on the River Barrow from Leighlinbridge to St Mullins for our escape. I’ve kayaked solo many times before, but never in a three-seater Canadian canoe. For this, we’re travelling with Go With The Flow, a river adventure company set-up and run, these last 20 years, by Charlie Horan. It offers river trails ranging from three hours to three days down Ireland’s second longest river, spanning a stunning, secluded region inexplicably overlooked by many.
Forget white water and rapids. We’re talking wide, calm, slow water swooned by swallows and choked in birdsong. Easy distances, measured out in weirs (which we veer clear of, for safety). Wooded banks and verdant pastures sit between 18th century locks and rustic, castle-clad villages where the pace of life seems set by the slow stride of the river. Camping on its banks by night, we awake each morning to the Barrow shifting silently past our open tent door, wondering could this all really be a mere 1.5 hours from Dublin?
Yes, it could. Goresbridge is our campsite for the first night, a perfectly peaceful little village about four or five hours easy paddling from Leighlinbridge. Camping on the river bank — keeping His Lordship’s buoyancy aid on at all times — watching the world flow placidly by, the seven-year old demands: “Which is more powerful: a knight or a bishop?”
Five hours further south, and we arrive at Graignamanagh, that idyllic petite Kilkenny town. Staying a night on its riverbank is as effortless as gravity; leaving it in the morning is the opposite: the town should offer free counselling on departure. To the backdrop of hills and woods, medieval stone bridges and castles, teenagers plunge off diving boards as legions of swimmers, rowers and paddlers of every denomination pay homage to this majestic watercourse.
On the Barrow’s banks, an array of parents and grandparents socialise and soak-up the early evening sunshine like some misplaced excerpt from the south of France. Spoiling ourselves (who said “cheating”?), we have an excellent cooked breakfast at The Waterside (watersideguesthouse.com) the morning after and load up the canoe for more.
Of course, safety comes first in all of this. More than a hundred people drown each year in Ireland, according to Irish Water Safety (iws.ie), and I wanted to ensure neither I nor my boy were going to be one of them. When we booked, Charlie sent on a short, accessible ‘Know Before You Go’ document, which put my mind at rest. Safety is paramount with Go With The Flow, as are peace-of-mind and practical planning.
Luckily my son is at least six years of age and able to swim 100m: as the safety criteria dictates. And luckily his How-Things-Work mind is enthralled by the manually–operated, hoary locks. “This is cool Daddy! It’s like flushing the water going down the toilet, only better!”
Unless you happen to have a lock key (e.g. purchasing one from Waterways Ireland), and, with it, some guidance on how to work the locks, it’s best to pull the canoe out of the water and carry past each lock, before re-stocking and re-entering it downstream.
But the locks are a great way to meet all sorts of characters, young and old, including an uber-chatty stream of walkers, joggers and cyclists ambling along the Barrow Way (it runs 120km down the majestic river’s towpath, and provides an opportunity for the family to stretch their legs when things get tetchy). Don’t use the weirs, however: they are extremely hazardous and will probably lead to a capsize and injury, or the loss of your belongings at the very least.
Our final day is a leisurely, three to four-hour drift to the picturesque village of St Mullins, a more than fitting sign-off for our adventure. The small settlement here sports an Anglo-Norman motte and a celebrated ecclesiastical history, having been established by St. Moling in the 7th century. Within the wider graveyard (above) on the hilltop are five decaying churches in various states of stony decay.
“Look Daddy, look!” shouts the seven year old. “There’s the castle and the bishop. And there,” says he, pointing at a halo-headed Mary statue rising from a grave, “is the Queen.”
Like some sort of regatta shindig without the boat race, the riverside here has a festive feel to it outside the superb Mullicháin cafe (pictured, oldgrainstorecottages.ie) with music and dancing in dappled shade. Sitting upon its banks with a fine cappuccino, I reflect upon the relatively small distance we’ve physically travelled over three days compared to the depth of re-engagement and enjoyment shared together: just happy to be again, fully present in each other’s company.
“What was your favourite thing from the whole trip?” I ask him. “Kicking your ass at chess,” is the comeback.
All equipment is provided, including the tent, but prior to arriving, stock up on dried food/packed lunches for three meals a day, plus drinking water. Being Ireland, you will need to be prepared for rain, cold and windy conditions, as well as the sun. And don’t forget your togs!
Go With The Flow (087 2529700; gowiththeflow.ie) will deliver your canoe to your chosen starting point and pick it up again from any village from St. Mullins northwards. Prices from around €40pp a day, including barrels, bags and tent. Some free places are available for small children. A deposit of €100 is required.
Plan, prepare and equip yourself well; tell someone your plans; monitor the weather forecast; know your limits, as this activity is only for people of generally good physical condition and fitness; be self-sufficient. For emergencies, bear in mind that mobile phone coverage can be sporadic at best on the Barrow.
The Norman lord who had a castle mound heaped up at St Mullin's, and a wooden-walled keep erected on top, intended the fortification to overlook the tidal limit of the River Barrow just below, a great place to extract tolls -- and to overawe the locals.