This article was published as an 'Autumn Series' in the Westmeath Examiner on Tuesday 3rd November 2020 and the Westmeath Independent on Wednesday 4th November 2020 . Full article text can be read underneath the press feature
The one positive outcome from months of lockdown restrictions has been a renewed connection with nature and a greater vigour for exploring what's on our own doorsteps. Hand-in-hand with this has been the growth in popularity of cycling and walking: bikes have been pulled out from dusty sheds and families have taken to the joys of two-wheeled travel once more, embracing the fresh air and one of life's simplest pleasures.
One of the midlands' greatest amenities is the Old Rail Trail, the dedicated cycle-track popular with cyclists, runners and walkers alike. Running for 40 kms from Mullingar to Athlone, the track is relatively flat, making it suitable for people of most ages and abilities, and perfect for families. It's very safe and entirely off-road, though you will be required to cross a few junctions throughout. There are a number of access and exit points so you can take it in bite-sized sections, building up to longer distances over time as you wish. There are many points of interest along the route.
Greenways such as this have contributed in no small way to developing a culture of cycling in Ireland. Westmeath's Old Rail Track is in good company, giving Mayo and Waterford's Greenways a serious run for their money. The route is a scenic and peaceful one, past rolling fields and travelling under a series of attractive and well-preserved stone bridges, including the lovely three-arched viaduct at Streamstown and the stone arch railway tunnel at Ballinea.
What gives Westmeath's greenway the edge is its sense of history. Running along the original Mullingar to Athlone Railway line which was in operation from 1851-1987, film buffs will know that scenes from Hollywood's The Great Train Robbery starring Sean Connery were famously shot here in the Seventies. Moate was the star of the show - 'Ashford' train station in the movie was actually filmed at the town's railway station.
It's not hard to see why they chose this location. The elegant mid-19th century station is picture-perfect and has been delightfully restored to its original glory in recent years. Thought to have been designed by renowned architect J.S. Mulvany, the classical detailing is still visible, including the bracketed stone pediments surmounting the two gables. The platforms on both sides of the track also feature the most intricate brick corbelling at the rim. The attractive stone-faced castle sidings adjacent to the station are an interesting historical reminder of the importance of Moate as a regional market centre. Today, the station is pretty as a postcard: the benches have been painted and there are brightly-coloured potted plants dotted along the platform.
The late historian Liam Cox wrote a brilliantly droll article The Railway Station where he recalls sitting on a wall behind the station as a child, watching the trains 'hissing and spitting' out steam. He goes on to mention how he enjoyed watching the fireman shoveling coal. On one memorable occasion the man cleaned his shovel and proceeded to pop on some rashers, followed by two eggs. Into the fire-pit they went, the smell wafting temptingly to Liam's nose. Quite the evocative image.
The beautifully preserved station at Castletown is also of historic significance. Opened in 1851, it was in use for over a hundred years and has also been renovated. If you're feeling energetic, a short off-track diversion of seven kilometres will bring you to the Hill of Uisneach, the ancient ceremonial site which was once the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. This is a place that everyone should visit, not least for the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Standing at almost 600 feet above sea level, on a clear day no less than twenty counties are visible on the horizon, across all four provinces. The earliest archaeological remains date to the Neolithic period, indicating human activity on the site for over 5000 years. Known as the true centre of Ireland, Uisneach sits at the heart of the mythical fifth province of Mide. The Catstone marks the meeting point of the ancient dividing lines of the four provinces.
For those who'd like to extend their route at the Mullingar end, the Old Rail Trail meets with the Royal Canal Greenway at Ballinea and Newbrook. At the other end, it's worth hopping off your bike to take in some of the treasures on offer in Athlone, starting with the beautiful stained-glass windows in the Church of St Peter and Paul from the Harry Clarke Studio. They're something special. And if you've never been, now is the time to visit the gorgeous Luan Gallery which runs along the west banks of the Shannon. Full of light and with spectacular views across the river, it should be on everyone's itinerary. It's free to visit too.
If all that exercise and fresh air has made you work up an appetite, there are lots of stop-off points on the way so you won't go hungry. Moate is an obvious one and Tuar Ard Coffee Shop is definitely worth a detour. Pop in and say hello to Shirley. The place is always busy, and for a very good reason - aside from the friendly staff, they serve great coffee and cakes, as well as hot meals, excellent salads and homemade bread. If you have the time, Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park is also worth a visit. It has a café on site, as well as a lovely Sculpture Trail and playground. Conveniently it has its own access point from the greenway.
Two pizza places have been the talk of the Midlands in recent months: Dead Centre Brewing in Athlone, and the newly opened Forge Pizza & Café in Castletown Geoghegan are definitely worth a pit-stop. If you're in a need of a caffeine fix, get yourself to Fine Wine & Food Co in Athlone. Their coffee is supplied by Bell Lane: an award-winning speciality roastery in Mullingar and one of the best in Ireland. With dine-in and takeaway options available, ever-dependent on public health guidelines, we can all do our bit to support local businesses. They need it now more than ever.