Last summer I cycled the Great Western Greenway from Westport to Achill on what turned out to be the hottest week of the year. I nearly melted in the process, but the landscape, especially on the Mulranny to Achill section, was so beautiful, I felt like I was cycling into a painting.
Last month I cycled the Waterford Greenway and although the weather was somewhat cooler and duller, the landscape was, in parts, quite magical.
What is it about old railway routes? I am familiar with the fact that there was a narrow-gauge railway that ran from Skibbereen to Schull in west Cork, which also must have been one of the most picturesque train journeys in the country.
Even in suburban Dublin, a section of the Dart line between Dún Laoghaire and Bray, along the coast at Killiney, is so scenic that it has been compared to Sorrento in Italy. Did the railway designers of the 1800s deliberately choose the most stunning locations for their train tracks or is it a happy accident?
Along with the beauty of the landscape, these old rail routes still boast some wonderful railway architecture. Majestic viaducts, graceful stone bridges and elegantly designed railway stations which carry more than a hint of the romance that travelling by rail must have engendered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Ireland had more than 5,500 kilometres of railway lines.
I thought about all of this as I dismounted my trusty old bike to walk through the tunnel at Ballyvoile on the Waterford Greenway last week. As I stepped into the silence and dim light, the only sound was that of my footsteps.
The only points of light came from bulbs hung in the alcoves that were every few feet; alcoves presumably built to offer men working on the tracks somewhere to step into, out of the way of an oncoming train.
These dimly lit archways lent the tunnel the feeling of walking through a cloister on a damp day. It was almost a meditative experience.
As I walked, I pictured the tunnel full of steam and noise as passengers, especially children, gasped in excitement as their carriage was plunged into the darkness.
And I recalled taking my own children on the Dart on that scenic trip to Bray so that they could have the same excitement as we entered the tunnel at Killiney Bay.
The railways of course were an integral part of the industrial revolution and enabled goods to be moved quickly to markets. Ultimately changing demographics, emigration and the arrival of the motor car all contributed to the death of the railway in rural areas. By the mid-twentieth century many of these wonderful rural railways had been closed.
Now many of these old railway lines are being reborn and transformed into brilliant greenways. These routes allow everyone, including people like me, who cycle slowly and carefully, to enjoy the freedom of being on a bike, not only in relative safety but also secure in the knowledge that there are no hills.
Because as my husband keeps telling me, trains can’t go up hills, apparently.
Gaining confidence on a bike when you are still relatively new to cycling is vital. Recently I cycled out to the northside of Dublin and enjoyed the freedom, if not the silence, of the protected cycleway along the seafront at Clontarf.
These protected cycle zones are essential if we are serious about climate change. They will encourage and enable all of us, and especially children, to cycle in relative safety.
Back in the tunnel I mounted my bike again and peddled towards the light so that I could check my phone which had pinged in the darkness.
My daughter had sent me a photo taken from our garden of huge flames licking the sky over Killiney Hill which was ablaze. Her message simply said “Killiney Hill is on fire.”
Later that night firefighters would still be working tirelessly in an attempt to stop the fire which came dangerously close to homes. I never remember this happening before.
I cycled on in Waterford, wrapped in nature, revelling in the beauty of this planet we call home.
And I wondered how we, the most supposedly evolved species on Earth, have allowed this very precarious situation to develop. Along with being stupidly resistant to changing our lifestyles, we elect governments who place the needs of the economy over that of society.
Thanks to the bravery of our firefighters, the residents of Killiney Hill were lucky this year. Next time it might be quite different.