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Ireland: Two wheels in Waterford

A new greenway stretches from Ireland's oldest city through rolling countryside to the Copper Coast. It's a cycling paradise.

Published 11 Jul 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:49 BST
Waterford Greenway
Waterford Greenway.

I'm leaving Ireland's oldest city with a weight on my shoulders.

Deadlines, inboxes, to-do lists… You know the story. Within a couple of miles of Waterford, however, the traffic dims to a distant hum. The greenway slips into a groove alongside the River Suir and drifts of buttercups, daisies and foxgloves spring up like lollipop stalls. All I can hear is the wind brushing my ears, the purr of pedals and bleeps of birdsong. Wilderness therapy has begun.

I'm on the Waterford Greenway, a 29-mile walking and cycling route on the former Great Southern and Western Railway line to Dungarvan. Officially opened this spring, it's an inspired reboot that's not only drawing a steady stream of psychedelically-coloured cyclists, but lifting local spirits too.

"It felt like we were Killarney today," Helen O'Mahony tells me. She runs a local pub and sweet shop in Durrow, an access point on the trail, with her husband Tom. "We even had people in from Florida, tracing their ancestors."

The best greenways work not just because of their scenery, and from Comeragh Mountains to Copper Coast, Waterford's certainly has that. They work because they ease people like me out of the day-to-day, providing a direct line into lives and localities way off the traditional tourist trails. Before the Waterford Greenway opened, Helen and Tom's customers were mostly local farmers. Now, they've found themselves in the eye of a souvenir-sized storm.

"Are ye open?" Tom laughs, gently mimicking the cyclists who come in, fishing through Lycra for wallets and phones. "If ye have money, we are!"

Don't expect a latte. O'Mahony's doesn't do fancy coffees… or food. The pub is a rural time capsule, with just a single beer on draught. Tom used to hop the train from the local station to school in Dungarvan, he tells me. The line stopped carrying passengers 50 years ago, but today feels born again.

Cycling along a mix of tarmac and stone-chip surfaces, I pass dog-walkers, buggy-pushers, joggers, power-exercisers, family groups and of course, chatty pelotons of visitors. An impeccably dressed older cyclist somehow makes safari shorts, a shirt, tie, V-neck jumper and hi-vis vest look dandy. At the halfway point, I stop for a sandwich served on thick cuts of Barron's Bakery bread at Coach House Coffee, and the place is absolutely hopping.

Heading southwest (you can also cycle from Dungarvan to Waterford, or rent bikes for shorter stretches in-between), the landscape winds from farmland to forest-traversing viaducts, from reedy riverbanks to a working railway on which day-trippers are pulled by a restored Simplex locomotive. Just after O'Mahony's, I glide through a 400m-long tunnel walled with crisp brickwork. The lighting is spooky. Big drops of rainwater pop off my helmet.

I dip under roads and pass over bridges. One minute, I'm cycling above a tapestry of fields dotted with cows. The next, I'm in what feels like a tropical ravine — dripping with greenery that could have come from Southeast Asia.

On the final stretch, from Durrow to Dungarvan, I'm joined by Garvan Cummins, co-founder of a group that originally campaigned for the greenway. Known as 'The Greenway Man', Garvan guides and rents bikes along the trail, and brings along a set of black-and-white photos showing the railway in its heyday, and a viaduct bombed to pieces during the Irish Civil War (1922-23).

The whole thing takes four or five hours to cycle. In a final reveal, a sweeping stretch of the southern coast appears below the trail at Clonea, before we pedal over a narrow causeway towards Dungarvan's harbour. Daylight is fading, boats are bobbing, and I can't remember a thing on my to-do list.

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