For the uninitiated, Athlone is located in the centre of Ireland, on the Shannon. This countryside is typified by low rolling hills (mounds, really) so while the cycling might be a bit ‘up and down’ they tend to be short, sharp pulls. So ideal for someone who fears mountains (i.e. me).
There is now a very well appointed dedicated rail track that runs between Athlone and Mullingar. It’s called the ‘Old Rail Trail’ and it’s a dedicated path for cyclists, walkers, joggers and dog walkers, total length in one direction is 40k or so. A few friends and I set out recently to cycle it from the Mullingar end, headed West to Athlone and the doubled back to Mullingar – a round trip of 80k.
Despite the appalling signposting for the trail in Mullingar, we did eventually (somehow) find our way through the maze of roundabouts and got to the well-appointed car park to get our gear on. We saddled up and headed West, and for the first stretch there’s a disused rail track on the left and the canal on the right, which is rather cool. The surface is great, you can see for miles, and the countryside in Spring/Summer is vibrant and green, with lots of birdlife and wildflowers such as primroses, cowslips and wild strawberries in the margins.
Effectively the route is right along the old disused railway line, so you have one set of tracks covered by gravel most of the way along the side of the cycle path. It’s clean, the junctions with roads are well structured, and it definitely should become a major tourist draw. The only downside is that (frankly) it’s a bit samey. It’s nice to be able to cycle along with kids and/or abreast with friends and chatting, but after a while you do start to zone out. On the plus side, you cover the distance without really realising you’re expending the effort.
Personally, to get a bit more variety into the outing, I’d park at the car park at either end of the Old Rail Trail and then use it as a jumping off point for some of the small villages and backroads that intersect with it. It should be possible to (for example) come off the trail around the Castletown Station point and then head South and East to loop around Lough Ennell and on into Belvedere House and park. The great thing about the Trail is that it’s SAFE and you can dip in and out of it as you wish. And there are maps all along the way so you know exactly where you stand in relation to the overall route.
At the other (Athlone) end, a while back myself and some friends headed out of Athlone across the Shannon. Then we went more or less due South before a dogleg East to Shannonbridge, a very pretty little town that straddles the river. We then visited (briefly, in cleats) the ancient and famous religious settlement at Clonmacnoise, before heading for a wonderful coffee shop in Ballynahown called the Tea Rooms. They dont do WiFi (see below). One of my mates is a cyclist who lives locally, so he knows all these ‘little treasures’ of coffee shops in remote locations. Ballynahown also has an amazing selection of ‘tree sculptures’ where someone extremely skilled with a chain-saw has created an impressive set of artefacts. Worth a visit. We then looped cross country, back onto the Trail, and headed more or less due West back into Athlone.
So at the end of the day, the Old Rail Trail is a great amenity. It’s got a wonderful surface, it’s safe and car-free, and it affords a vista across rolling farmlands and a chance to see hundreds (possibly thousands) of cows. But if you want to ‘mix it up’ a bit, then use it as jumping on or off point and explore some of the many other local attractions. And if anyone from the people who set it up happens to read this, take a bow, but please add a few signposts around Mullingar to help wanderers like me find the trailhead a bit more easily…