The Westmeath Way: a rustic national walking trail
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An authentic experience through the heart of the midlands awaits those who embark on The Westmeath Way: a rustic 28km national waymarked walking trail from Kilbeggan to Mullingar. The linear route takes you through peaceful and unspoiled landscapes, along river and canal paths, through farmland and woodland to the banks of Lough Ennell and onwards. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper midlands’ trail without some bog land to navigate too. If you enjoy solitary hikes on lesser-trodden paths, then this is the one for you.
The trail is currently split into two distinct sections: Kilbeggan to Dysart, via Lilliput, and then picking up again at Ladestown, continuing on to Mullingar. There is currently no cross-country access over the privately owned land in between. Although undertaking the full route is not an option at present, there are plenty of short individual sections that can be undertaken within your 5 kms.
Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan is your first landmark. In operation since 1757, not only is it Ireland’s oldest licensed distillery, it’s the oldest of its kind in the world. The route is well signposted from the start: the yellow man signs point the way to an Industrial Estate where a gap in a fence brings you to the banks of the River Brosna. The initial section is not really a path at all, more of a roughly trodden riverside embankment, and the ground can be quite uneven for a time. But don’t be put off by what looks like a rather underwhelming start to the trail –within minutes it opens up to what I can only describe as rural idyll – a tree-lined path along the slowly flowing river. Don’t be surprised to see a swan float past – they are not uncommon on the Brosna.
Walkers are momentarily diverted through a stile on the next bend, bringing you through the fields where you’ll join the river once more. A strategically placed bench is the perfect spot to admire the view of the picturesque ruins of Coola Mill on the opposite side. I should mention at this point that proper walking boots are an absolute necessity – the terrain can be a little rough in parts and this crossing was the first of many where muddy water came squirting up to ankle height. I didn’t use the word rustic lightly. If you’re expecting clearly defined pathways, you may be in for a surprise. But the pay-off is an unmatched sense of solitude and serenity.
Around the next bend, it’s impossible not to be wowed by the imposing ruins of the 18th century Coola Mills complex, and the attractive arched stone bridge across the Brosna. It’s a striking piece of architecture: a crenelated parapet running across the top gives the impression of a castle. Coola was one of a number of corn mills along the Brosna and is thought to have played a major role in the social and economic history of Kilbeggan in the mid to late 18th century.
The trail between Coola and Ballinagore is particularly lovely – a quiet country lane brings you once more to the banks of the Brosna. With scenic meadows on both sides, it really is the epitome of a pastoral landscape and the hypnotic sound of the river will keep you company as you follow its trajectory northwards. This section is a short one, less than 5 kms, and the picnic area at Ballinagore, on a riverside glade below the stone bridge, is an idyllic spot to take a rest. This charming little village looks like a postcard, particularly on a blue-sky day. An interesting fact: Ballinagore was the first place in Ireland to have gas lighting, back in 1840.
The next section is by road, bringing you to Lilliput on the shores of Lough Ennell. Jonathan Swift was a regular visitor to Westmeath and legend has it that his Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels were drawn from an observation on how small the people on the opposite shore appeared across the expanse of water.
A clearly defined walkway leads you away from the lakefront, and through kissing gates you are back on the road again, headed for Dysart. Past Nure Bog, a gate to the left brings you down a dirt road through an expanse of lush green fields, enormous trees and bog land. Like most children of the midlands, long summer days helping out on the bog are some of my abiding childhood memories so crossing a series of sedgy fields was something I was not unfamiliar with. However, late evening sun cast a beautiful golden glow which transformed the landscape.
Past the ruins of an old farmstead, arrows will direct you through a field with no obvious pathway and past a herd of cattle staring bemusedly: soon you will reach the footbridge on the Dysart River. Any semblance of a footpath has entirely disappeared at this point but following the contours of the river will keep you on the right track, bringing you across fields and to a stile exiting at Dysart village. Sights of interest here include the ruins of Dysart church, reputedly destroyed by Cromwell but still visible with the walls of an old graveyard, and the overgrown St. Maoltuile’s holy well.
The last stretch of the route picks up again at Ladestown, Lough Ennell. This breathtaking place is surely a contender for one of the best places in the midlands to catch a sunset. The water laps gently between the reeds, flocks of tiny birds gather in the trees, and swans converge on the lakeshore.
If you can drag yourself away, a short distance by road will bring you to Bellmount Bridge to join the Royal Canal. The right-hand bank will bring you all the way to Harbour Bridge in Mullingar – your final destination.
Full trail brochure can be found here: http://www.westmeathcoco.ie/en/ourservices/artsandrecreation/westmeathway/